What is Midrash in Judaism?

Filling in the Gaps, Making Jewish Law Relevant

Abraham/Ibrahim destroying idols, Athar al-Baqiya (Chronology of Nations), NW Iran
The famous midrash in Midrash Genesis Rabbah where Abraham destroys idols (Athar al-Baqiya [Chronology of Nations], NW Iran).

The body of Jewish textual works is vast, from the origin of Judaism within the Torah (the five books of Moses), and the subsequent Prophets (Nevi'im) and Writings (Ketuvim) that all make up the Tanakh, to the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds. 

Capping off all of these vital works are countless commentaries and attempts at filling in the gaps that exist, making a black-and-white reading of the most basic texts of Judaism nearly impossible to understand, let alone live by. This is where midrash comes in. 

Meaning and Origins

Midrash (מדרש‎; plural midrashim) is an exposition or explanatory analysis on a Biblical text that attempts to fill in gaps and holes for a more fluid and complete understanding of the text. The term itself originates from the Hebrew word for "to seek, study, inquire" (דרש).

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, author of The Living Torah, explains midrash as

"... a generic term, usually denoting the non-legalistic teachings of the rabbis of the Talmudic era. In the centuries following the final redaction of the Talmud (around 505 CE), much of this material was gathered into collections known as Midrashim."

In this sense, within the Talmud, which is made up of Oral Law (Mishnah) and Commentary (Gemara), the latter has a great deal of midrash in its explanations and commentary. 

Types of Midrash

There are two categories of  midrash: 

  • midrash halacha (הֲלָכָה, meaning "law"): these types of midrash are focused on the legal aspects of the Torah. Oftentimes, these midrashim address the law in order to elaborate on commandments that might otherwise be difficult to interpret into every day life.
  • midrash aggadah (אַגָּדָה, meaning "tales" or "lore"): these types of midrash are non-legal and homiletical in nature. Oftentimes, these midrashim address ethical or theological topics through parables or stories. 

There are countless works of midrash that have been written over the years, largely after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Specifically with midrash halacha, the destruction of the Second Temple meant that the rabbis needed to make Jewish law relevant. When so much of the Torah's legal code was dependent on the Temple service, this period became the heyday for midrash halacha. 

The largest collection of midrash aggadah is known as Midrash Rabbah (meaning large)This is actually 10 unrelated collections compiled during more than eight centuries that discuss the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), as well as the following megillot:

  • Song of Songs (Shir ha'Shirim)
  • Ruth 
  • Lamentations (Eicha)
  • Ecclesiastes (Qohelet)
  • Esther

Smaller collections of  midrash aggadah are designated as zuta, meaning "small" in Aramaic (e.g., Bereshit Zuta, or "smaller Genesis," which was compiled in the 13th century).

Is Midrash the Word of God?

One of the most interesting realities of  midrash is that those who composed midrash did not view their work as interpretation. As Barry W. Holtz in Back to the Sources explains,

"Torah, to the rabbis, was an eternally relevant book because it was written (dictated, inspired — it doesn’t matter) by a perfect Author, an Author who intended it to be eternal. ... The rabbis could not help but believe that this wondrous and sacred text, the Torah, was intended for all jews and for all times. Surely, God could foresee the need for new interpretations; all interpretations, therefore, are already in the Torah text. Thus, we have the idea mentioned previously: on Mount Sinai God gave not only the Written Torah that we know, but the Oral Torah, the interpretations of Jews down through time."

Essentially, God anticipated all events throughout the time that would result in the need for what some call reinterpretation and others call "re-revealing" what is already contained in the text. A famous adage in Pirkei Avot says, about the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is contained therein" (5:26).

An example of this understanding comes from within Lamentations Rabbah, which was composed after the destruction of the Second Temple and is considered midrash aggadah. It was developed at a time when the Jewish people needed explanations and understandings of what exactly was happening, what God was intending. 

"This I recall to mind, therefore I have hope." — Lam. 3.21
R. Abba b. Kahana said: This may be likened to a king who married a lady and wrote her a large ketubah: "so many state-apartments I am preparing for you, so many jewels I am preparing for you, and so much silver and gold I give you."
The king left her and went to a distant land for many years. Her neighbors used to vex her saying, "Your husband has deserted you. Come and be married to another man." She wept and signed, but whenever she went into her room and read her ketubah she would be consoled. After many years the king returned and said to her, "I am astonished that you waited for me all these years." She replied, "My lord king, if it had not been for the generous ketubah you wrote me then surely my neighbors would have won me over."
So the nations of the world taunt Israel and say, "Your God has no need of you; He has deserted you and removed His Presence from you. Come to us and we shall appoint commanders and leaders of every sort for you." Israel enters synagogues and houses of study and reads in the Torah, "I will look with favor upon you ... and I will not spurn you" (Lev. 26.9-11), and they are consoled.
In the future the Holy One blessed be He will say to Israel, "I am astonished that you waited for me all these years." And they will reply, "If it had not been for the Torah which you gave us ... the nations of the world would have led us astray." ... Therefore it is stated, "This do I recall and therefore I have hope." (Lam. 3.21)

In this example, the rabbis are explaining to the people that an ongoing commitment to Torah living will eventually bring about God fulfilling the promises of the Torah. As Holtz says,

“In that way Midrash tries to bridge the gap between faith and despair, seeking to make sense out of the events of tragic history.”